Over the last decade, there has been a welcome focus on raising standards in English education.
Schools with poor levels of performance have been under great pressure to improve - and rightly so.
We still have some way to go to raise levels of attainment to acceptable levels in all schools.
Only half of the journey is yet completed.
But today I want to focus particularly on the issue of closing the achievement gap.
Even as overall attainment has risen over the last decade, the attainment gap has remained stubbornly wide.
It is unacceptable that in our country there is such an enormous gap between the life chances of children from poor backgrounds and other children.
Last year only 38% of disadvantaged pupils achieved 5 good GCSEs, including English and Maths, or equivalent qualifications, versus 65% of other pupils.
That is one of the widest achievement gaps in the world, and it is one of this Government’s key objectives to dramatically narrow that gap. We want schools, local authorities and Academy chains to focus not only on overall attainment but on narrowing the attainment gaps. That is why the Government introduced the Pupil Premium, which allocates more money to schools with the most disadvantaged pupils. Some schools are using their Pupil Premium effectively to close gaps. Others are not yet doing enough.
Meanwhile, some parts of the country have modest attainment gaps, while others such as Buckinghamshire, Southend on Sea, Warrington and Wokingham, have GCSE attainment gaps of 40 percentage points or more.
That is plainly unacceptable. We want ambitious plans from schools, Academy chains and local authorities to close these gaps. Today, I want to talk about two policy actions which the Government is going to take to help to close these unacceptable gaps. Firstly, improving secondary-readiness of all pupils, not least those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Secondly, making sure that schools do much more to focus on gap narrowing and that the Pupil Premium is used effectively.
Let us start with secondary readiness.
Over recent years, standards in primary education have risen, and the performance gap at Key Stage Two has narrowed. Last year, there were almost as many schools which achieved 100% level 4 and above at Key Stage 2 as there were schools which were below the floor standard.
But we still have to confront two problems.
Firstly, too many children, many of them disadvantaged, fail to reach an acceptable standard at Key Stage 2. We cannot be content when schools can clear the floor standard while still having almost 4 in 10 children failing to achieve basic levels of literacy and numeracy.
So we will continue to ask schools to get a higher proportion of their pupils to clear the bar.
I am therefore announcing today that the floor standard at Key Stage Two will rise next year from 60% to 65%. Schools can anticipate that our expectations of the proportion who achieve success will continue to rise rapidly over time.
But there is a second challenge if we are to get more pupils - particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds - achieving success in public examinations at Key Stage Four and Key Stage Five. We have to ensure that more children leave primary school prepared properly to succeed in secondary education.
The Government’s view is that the current Level 4c threshold is not a guaranteed ticket to success. It does not prepare pupils adequately to succeed in secondary education. Indeed, less than half of children at this level go on to achieve 5 good GCSEs.
Most schools know this. Last week I visited King Solomon Academy, a new ARK School near Paddington Station in London. Over 40% of their pupils are on free school meals, and over two-thirds - more than 60% of pupils - have been on free school meals at some point in the last six years.
Max, the head teacher, told me that his target at Key Stage 2 is not 60% reaching the required standard, but 85%. But, and this is the key, his required standard was not Level 4c, but level 5c! Clearing that bar sets you up for real success. 96% of children who achieve Level 5c or better go on to secure 5 good GCSEs, including English and Maths. Most actually do far better than this.
So today I want to make clear that not only do we want more children to clear the existing bar at Key Stage 2. In the future, we are going to raise the level of the bar itself.
From 2016, the new Key Stage Two tests should have as the definition of “pass” a level of demand expressly designed to ensure that a child reaching this level is genuinely prepared for success in secondary school.
This would mean that they are well placed to achieve a good set of GCSE results, at the new, more rigorous, standard.
To help schools to prepare for this step change in expectations in primary education, we will this year publish the proportion of children in each school who reach a good level 4 - i.e. a 4b - in each of the subjects.
Nationally, last year, 62% of 11 year olds achieved at least a good level 4 in both reading and maths. 18% achieved a Level 4 but did not achieve a good level 4 in both reading and maths.
The new measure will not be part of the accountability regime, but it will help schools to lift their sights before the new standards are introduced in 2016. From now on, we must prepare the vast majority of children for success in secondary education - not for failure or mediocrity.
This week sees the formal launch of this year’s Summer Schools Programme for disadvantaged pupils. This is a £50m programme, funded from the Pupil Premium budget, that helps disadvantaged pupils make a successful transition from primary to secondary school. Schools can register their summer schools on the Department’s website and claim their share of the money. I would also like to pay tribute to all the hard working teachers who made last year’s summer schools such a success.
Our second big policy priority is to ask schools, local authorities and academy chains to do more to narrow the performance gaps - in both primary and secondary schools.
We are changing the accountability regime to send this signal out in a clear way to schools. In the past, schools have been incentivised to focus heavily on the C/D borderline in GCSEs. This has meant that there has been only a limited incentive for schools to focus on improvement for low ability pupils, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds.
As you know, we are now consulting on replacing the existing 5 good GCSEs target with a new twin accountability measure at Key Stage Four. This will include a progress measure, which will give schools the credit for improving the performance of all pupils - whether well below or well above the C threshold.
OFSTED is also doing much more to hold schools to account for closing the attainment gaps. Solid overall attainment is no longer enough to secure a “Good” or “Outstanding” classification, if there are large performance gaps. The Chief Inspector for Schools and I both agree that a school simply cannot be regarded as “Outstanding” if it is failing its disadvantaged pupils, and he will look at this when he next revises the inspection framework.
Using the Pupil Premium effectively is a key part of our strategy for closing the gaps.
The Government has made clear that we are not going back to the days of micromanaging school budgets from Whitehall. But the Pupil Premium is a huge additional investment for schools - £1.875 billion in 2013-14, rising to £2.5 billion in 2014-15. This is thousands of pounds of extra funding for individual schools, at a time when hard financial decisions are being made. That money must be effectively used, which is why OFSTED is looking more closely than ever before at how gaps are being narrowed. If gaps are not being narrowed, OFSTED will want to know why not, and they will look closely at Pupil Premium expenditure.
But today I want to signal that we are going to go further in ensuring that the Pupil Premium is well spent.
Many school leaders have told me that Outstanding and Good schools can be trusted to spend their Pupil Premium well, with oversight from OFSTED.
Fine, I do not wish to meddle with these schools. But where schools are neither good nor outstanding, where pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are doing particularly poorly, and where leadership and management requires improvement, we cannot just stand back and hope for the best. Because children have only one chance in life, we have to do more to ensure that schools are giving children all the support they need to achieve.
And we will do this, not by prescribing centrally what schools should do with their Pupil Premium, but by harnessing the excellent and innovative work of leading schools to support schools in which disadvantaged pupils are doing poorly.
So from September 2013 onwards, category 3 (“requiring improvement”) schools, that are also category 3 for leadership, and which have low attainment for disadvantaged children, will have more accountability requirements for their Pupil Premium.
In these cases, the school will be required to draw up an action plan for the pupil premium in consultation with a system leader - a National Leader in Education, or another accredited “System Leader” with a record of success in narrowing gaps.
The school will then work with the system leader to develop a new strategy for spending the Pupil Premium effectively, based on the evidence of what works.
This Action Plan will be a detailed plan for using the Pupil Premium to close gaps. And OFSTED will comment on the impact of this plan as part of its programme for monitoring and re-inspecting weak schools.
Because OFSTED is the most powerful element of accountability which we have, I believe that this mechanism of intervention is more likely to be effective than other proposals, such as removing the Pupil Premium from schools which are under-performing.
But let me make clear that both the Government and schools need to be able to show that there is a real return from allocating this amount of money.
Failing to secure value for money from the Pupil Premium is not, for me, an option.
Let me finish by saying this: I know that in many ways what matters most for closing the achievement gap is to get the best head teachers and school leaders into some of our most challenging schools, and to make sure that we incentivise you to do your best to close these gaps which blight English education.
I do, of course, understand the pressure on heads in some of our toughest schools. I think our new accountability regime, with its emphasis on progress, will better recognise the success of many such schools. We will also be publishing tables of “Similar Schools”, to help schools with similar levels of challenge to learn from each other.
The Secretary of State and I are also reflecting on what more we can do to get extra support to school leaders who take on challenging schools. We welcome your views about this, too.
I hope, over the next few months, to be in a position to announce further policies that will support school leaders facing some of the toughest challenges. Your job is perhaps the most important for our country’s future, and I want to thank you for all that you have done, and doing, and will do in future.